A true friend gives support without judgment, comes through in a crisis and knows just the right thing to say when it matters most. Friendships are an essential ingredient in a happy life, so it’s time to give them the care and attention they deserve. Keep reading to learn why friendships matter, how to sustain them and the simple steps you can take right now to be a better friend.

The Benefits of Friendship

Family relationships often come with a dose of guilt and obligation. Friends, on the other hand, are the antidote to the burdens of daily life.

Friends Share the Load

How powerful is friendship? Researchers at the University of Virginia wanted to find out whether friendship influences how we approach the challenges of daily life. In an unusual experiment, researchers stood at the base of a steep hill (a 26 degree incline) on the university campus and asked 34 students as they walked by to help them in an experiment. Some students were by themselves; others were walking in pairs.

Each student was given a backpack filled with weights equal to about 20 percent of their body weight. While the students may have had the impression they were going to have to climb the hill, the researchers simply asked them to estimate how steep the climb would be.

Notably, students standing alone perceived the hill slant as steeper and thought it would be harder to climb while carrying the weighted pack. But students who were standing next to a friend thought the hill looked easier to climb and gave lower estimates of its steepness. Interestingly, the longer the two friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

Other studies support the notion that social support helps us cope with stress. When female college students were asked to complete challenging math tasks, their heart rates went up. But when they were asked to complete the math problems with a friend in the room, their heart rates were lower. Scientists also know that when rhesus monkeys are moved to a new environment, the level of stress hormones in their blood increases. But when a monkey is moved along with her preferred companion (monkeys form friendships too), the stress hormones measured in her blood were much lower. (Similar results have been seen with rats and guinea pigs.)

All this research suggests that friends can change our view of a challenging situation, and that the mere presence of a friend in the same room can lower our stress. Having friends essentially allows us to outsource some of the emotional burdens of daily life.

Friends With Health Benefits

Most of the research on health and relationships is focused on romantic partners. But researchers have found that our friendships actually have a bigger impact on our health. Here are some of the findings about the health benefits of having friends:

  • A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends.
  • In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. Notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective. Having a spouse wasn’t associated with survival.
  • In a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men, being attached to a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. Among risk factors for cardiovascular health, lacking social support was as bad as smoking.

Why are friendships so good for us? Scientists have a few theories.

Logistical support: Friends can run errands and pick up medicine for a sick person, although in most studies, proximity was not a factor in the benefits of friendship.

Association: It may be that people with strong social ties also have better access to health services and care or are more likely to seek help.

Less stress: People with strong friendships are less likely than others to get colds, perhaps because they have lower stress levels.

Positive peer pressure: Researchers have found that certain health behaviors appear to be contagious and that our social networks — in person and online — can influence obesity, anxiety and overall happiness. A recent report found that a person’s exercise routine was strongly influenced by his or her social network.

But it could also work the opposite way, a large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight.

Friendships Make Aging Easier

Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, has studied the health habits of people who live in regions of the world where people live far longer than the average. He refers to these areas as “blue zones” and found that positive friendships are a common theme in these regions.

In Okinawa, Japan, where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, the oldest in the world, people form a kind of social network called a moai — a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime. In a moai, the group benefits when things go well, such as by sharing a bountiful crop, and the group’s families support one another when a child gets sick or someone dies. They also appear to influence one another’s lifelong health behaviors.

Buettner’s team created a quiz to help people assess the positive impact of their own social network. The quiz asks questions about your friends and the state of their health, how much they drink, eat and exercise, as well as their outlook. The goal is not for you to dump your less healthy friends, but to identify the people in your life who score the highest and to spend more time with them.

The most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network. In general you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation.  You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.

Here are 10 suggestions for enhancing who you are and what you bring to a friendship—or any other type of significant relationship.

  1. Communicate with others with honesty and tact. Be willing to voice your own perspective and your genuine feelings, but do so from a place of kindness and sensitivity to the feelings of others.
  2. Always be a person of your word and stand behind the promises and intentions you make regarding your commitments to other people. Be the kind of friend that people are able to trust implicitly.
  3. As a corollary, be willing to trust your friends, as well. Most of us feel good about ourselves when others are able to put their trust in us; many of us take pride in being perceived as trustworthy. Spread the positive feelings by being willing to trust others. Too many people have difficulty trusting that others will be there for them—take a leap of faith and model for others how trust can be given and trust can be earned.
  4. Show up for others – metaphorically and literally—when you say that you will. Be willing to put yourself out for a friend knowing that there may be a time in the future when you need your friend to put himself out for you.
  5. Recognizing that all of us have a shortcoming or two – and accepting that as part of human frailty—is a significant aspect of enduring loyalty. Don’t give up on friends who falter or who might not be as readily present in your life as you might like. By being loyal to your friends, you are building a strong support network. We don’t always know when we might find ourselves freefalling through life—have a network of friends who are there to break your fall usually is much more likely to occur if you’ve been loyal to your friends over time.
  6. Practice and master the much-valued gift of empathy for others. Be willing to put yourself in another’s shoes and drop any need to convince others of the “correctness” of your own perspective. Imagine the world from the position of another and you will soon learn the value of this skill in building relationships built on a sense of shared understanding.
  7. Learn to be present with a friend and to listen without feeling the need to interject just because there’s a pause in the conversation. We grow through learning and if we aren’t willing to listen to others, we can’t learn any more than we already know—or are trying to teach others!
  8. Don’t assume your way is always the right way! Grow your ability to observe the world from multiple perspectives. This will help you become more empathetic with your friends and it will also help you let go of any judgments or biases you might tend to bring to interactions with others. Empathy and non-judgment are two essential skills that are like fuel to the fire of deepening relationships.
  9. Be there for your friends when they are coping with the bumps in the road that they might meet; but, equally important, be there for your friends when they are celebrating their triumphs. Everyone knows just how much misery loves company, but remember that most of us love to be surrounded by the people who care about us when we are celebrating our accomplishments, as well. Don’t begrudge, resent, or envy a friend’s good fortune or hard work pay-off, join the party! There’s enough pain to go around in this life, so don’t miss the chance to revel in the joy that your friends might experience in their lives.
  10. Learn how to laugh at the humor in life—and, most importantly, learn how to laugh at yourself and stop taking yourself so seriously. Yes, life is “serious business,” but without finding a space for joy, lightheartedness, or wonder, you’re investing way too much energy in the “business” of life. Not only do you need to see the humor in life, you also need to be fun to be around. Being the responsible one might be your role in a friendship group, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be fun to hang with. We have enough drama in life on the job or in our families—let go of any tendencies to be a “drama queen” among your friends.